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Tom Nolan's Excellent Adventure

Who are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Picture of a Dolphin
Tom Nolan Used to Train Dolphins Like This One. Picture Provided by NOAA
There are tons of paths to becoming a NASA Earth Explorer. Tom Nolan's is just more unusual than others.

Today, Nolan works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He uses computers to control a satellite instrument called MISR. MISR stands for Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer.

Nolan's first job was quite different. After graduating from the University of Southern California in 1977, Nolan worked as a dolphin show trainer at a theme park. He made the dolphins spin, jump, whiz and whir.

Nolan studied marine biology in college. And working with dolphins is exactly what he wanted to do. "But what I really enjoyed, as much as doing the show itself, was the interaction with the public," Nolan said. Nolan would answer questions from curious kids and adults watching the show.

Before coming to NASA, Nolan worked in Alaska as a fishing and wilderness guide. Later, he opened a sporting goods store in New Mexico. All along, he remembered how much he loved talking with people, especially about science.

Nolan was able to combine his science and communication skills when he came to NASA in 1998. His job was to inform the public about JPL's Earth Science missions. "I enjoy translating what is difficult for people to understand," Nolan said.

Nolan has a different job now. He sends commands to MISR and keeps track of its health and safety. But he still likes to explain science.

Recently, Nolan took part in the NOAA Teacher at Sea program. NOAA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NASA and NOAA work together on things like weather satellites and projects to study our oceans and climate.

Picture of Tom Nolan on the NOAA ship
Tom Nolan on the NOAA Ship
From a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Nolan talked about what JPL does and how it relates to NOAA. He also showed how he collects data used to make sure MISR is working correctly. Students and teachers were able to watch him on the Internet.

Nolan is also a member of a team of NASA scientists and educators that go into communities and speak about science. This is part of the Challenger Center's Journey through the Universe program. The Challenger Center was created in 1986 by the families of the astronauts who died during the Challenger space shuttle mission.

To become a NASA Earth Explorer, Nolan says it's important for students to always ask questions. He also points out the need to be ready for the unexpected. For example, the work that Nolan is involved in now -- observing the oceans from space -- didn't even exist when he was in school. The first satellite meant to observe oceans wasn't launched until 1978.

"Most kids in school are going to have careers in fields that haven't been invented yet," Nolan said. "If you have this internal drive where you 'gotta know,' NASA is a great place to be."

Coming in February: Earth Explorers celebrates African American History Month.

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